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Coal miners still die from Black Lung in 2013, but new rules could change that

This month federal regulators are expected to come out with new rules around Black Lung. The Department of Labor, which is writing the new requirements for how mining companies reduce the exposure of miners to respirable coal dust, particles of dust small enough to be breathed in by miners, won’t disclose what they say. But for the miners, tighter restrictions can’t come too soon. 

This month federal regulators are expected to come out with new rules around Black Lung. The Department of Labor, which is writing the new requirements for how mining companies reduce the exposure of miners to respirable coal dust, particles of dust small enough to be breathed in by miners, won’t disclose what they say. But for the miners, tighter restrictions can’t come too soon. 

In 2010 the Mine Safety and Health Administration, an office of the Department of Labor launched an initiative to end Black Lung. “Act Now!” says a project website in red type with all caps. But three years later the new rules that would help to prevent the disease still haven’t been issued, and five to eight hundred miners continue to die of Black Lung each year. 

“Not only are we seeing more advanced cases, but we’re seeing the advanced cases in younger coal miners, ” said Timothy Bailey, a lawyer in Charleston, West Virginia, who represents sick miners against the industry. “These men are reporting the dust is so thick you can’t see in front of your face. The man operating the continuous miner can’t see the other end of the continuous machine.” 

One explanation for the increase in cases, says Bailey, is a change in coal mining strategy. As we run out of pure seams of coal, he says mining companies are increasingly turning to sources that have more rock mixed in. As a result, miners are breathing in more rock dust, quartz, or silica, than they used to. 

In 1968 a deadly explosion at a coal mine in Farmington, West Virginia killed 78 people. A year later, in new mine safety rules were created. But in the four decades since there haven’t been many changes to rules about dust in mines. 

“It’s clear that the science that was used to set original standard wasn’t as accurate as it could have been,” says Dr. Edward Petsonk, a professor of pulmonary medicine at West Virginia University. Dr. Petsonk notes that the amount of dust, as well its toxicity, must be increasing. But Phil Smith, Direct of Communications for the miner’s union, United Mine Workers of America says some of the blame belongs elsewhere.  “It’s a lack of will by the companies to follow the law that exist. And in some cases a lack of will by the government to enforce the laws that exist,” he says. 

“If you’re going to cheat and not going to enforce the law,” says Timothy Bailey, “it doesn’t matter what the limit is.” 

The National Mining Association, which represents mining companies, declined an interview on the expected new rules. But it did a issue a written statement saying it doesn’t deny there’s a problem. But it does disagree with the Mine Safety and Health Administration over the extent and proper response. The statement questions whether MSHA was "using a narrow problem in a tight geographic area as justification for imposing a new, reduced standard on the entirety of the industry -- where no documented problems exist.” 

Whether it’s politics, science or companies running afoul of the law causing the problem, Dr. Petsonk just wants a solution, and quick. “I think the people who do this work deserve the best protection, the best science, our country  can give them,” he says. 

About the author

Sally Herships is a regular contributor to Marketplace.

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